NEW DELHI: At least 14 people were killed and dozens more wounded Friday when violent protests erupted over a court’s decision to convict a controversial Indian guru for raping two devotees, a local hospital official said.
“Fourteen people have died and 80 were injured,” a medical officer at the government hospital in the northern city of Panchkula said without giving his name.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the head of a social welfare and spiritual group, was held guilty of raping two women followers in a case dating back to 2002 at the headquarters of his Dera Sacha Sauda group in the northern town of Sirsa.
Policed fired teargas to disperse his supporters, some of whom threw stones after the court verdict was announced. Television showed pictures of a media van with a cracked windscreen. Singh commands a following that he claims is in the millions.
Supporters started gathering in the streets outside the court in Panchkula town on Thursday. “The court has convicted Ram Rahim Singh of rape charges,” Kohal Dev Sharma, a lawyer at the court said. “Justice has finally prevailed.”
Sharma’s sentencing will be announced later in the month, media reported. Sharma said the Singh faced a minimum of seven years in prison.
Singh, a burly, bearded man who has scripted and starred in his own films, denied the rape charge. He had called on his followers through a video message to remain peaceful. “We all must respect the law and maintain peace,” he said.
Some Indian holy men can summon thousands of supporters on to the streets. Their systems of patronage and sermons are hugely popular with people who consider the government has failed them.
Authorities had earlier imposed a curfew in Sirsa and ordered thousands of Singh’s followers to go home. Mobile internet services had also been suspended in the states of Haryana and Punjab to stop people from spreading rumours and causing unrest, senior government official Ram Niwas said.
The army was on standby. In 2014, the attempted arrest of another guru on murder charges ended with his followers attacking police with clubs and stones.